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CIAO Focus, April 2015: The Conflict in Yemen

Last month Saudi Arabia cobbled together a coalition of Sunni Arab countries, backed by the United States, and began air strikes against a Shiite rebel group called the Houthis originally based in the mountains of North Yemen.  The Saudis accuse Iran, their main rival in the region, of arming and training the Houthi insurgency. 

In September 2014, Houthi fighters stormed the capital of Sanaa overthrowing the UN recognized, but widely unpopular, transitional government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.  By early 2015 the Houthis had consolidated their control over Sanaa forcing Hadi to flee first to Aden and then later to leave country. 

In the simplest terms, the conflict is a proxy war being fought between the Saudi supported government forces of the deposed Hadi regime and the Houthis backed by Iran (exactly how much support the Houthis receive from Iran is not altogether clear). However, a closer look reveals a complex web of overlapping alliances and rivalries involving myriad actors and groups:

Hadi vs Houthis: The biggest divide is between government forces loyal to deposed president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi on one side and the Houthis and their allies on the other.

Hadi vs Saleh: Hadi’s predecessor, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2011, has cynically formed an alliance --some say marriage of convenience--with his former nemesis, the Houthis, against a common enemy (Hadi).  The Yemeni government under Saleh feared the spread of an increasingly politicized Houthi ideology and fought six wars against them in 10 years.  Although the support of Saleh’s political supporters was a key factor in the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the alliance between the two sides is fraught with lingering suspicions.  

Saudi Arabia vs Iran: Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a power struggle for domination of the Persian Gulf.  The Saudis view the Houthis as Iranian proxies and have formed a regional anti-Houthi coalition comprised of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan. 

Al-Qaeda vs Hadi & Houthis: A branch of al-Qaeda calling itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is fighting both militias loyal to President Hadi as well as the Houthis whom it regards as heretics.  AQAP, which is considered a threat to U.S. security, is entrenched in Yemen’s southern and southeastern regions.

North vs South: The south was an independent state prior to 1990 and a new separatist movement has emerged there in recent years.  But the southern separatists are divided amongst themselves with many suspicious of Hadi’s pro unionist stance.  Most of the forces loyal to Hadi in addition to the militant Sunni groups such as AQAP and an incipient Islamic State presence are based in the south while the Houthis control much of the north.     

Shiite vs Sunni: The Houthis are mostly Zaidi Shiites (as opposed to the Twelver Shiite branch found predominantly in Iran) who have ruled the mountainous region of Saada in the north for more than 1,000 years.  They currently make up around a third of Yemen’s population.  Central to the Zaidi faith is the principle of fighting the unjust ruler.  Yemen does not have a history of protracted sectarian strife.  The Houthis accuse al-Qaeda, a militant Sunni group, of preaching a divisive doctrine which has pitted Shiites against Sunnis.

--Robert Sedgwick, Editor, CIAO


From the CIAO Database:

Yemen at War

TSG IntelBrief: A Wider War in Yemen

Mediating Transition in Yemen: Achievements and Lessons

Do Drone Strikes in Yemen Undermine US Security Objectives?

Yemen's domestic and regional politics


Outside Sources: *

The Joint Arab Military Force and Yemen: Stability or Sectarianism? (Atlantic Council)

Will al Qaeda Be the Great Winner of Yemen’s Collapse? (Foreign Policy)

Who Are Yemen's Houthis? (CFR)

Four Weddings and a Funeral in Yemen (MERIP)

Yemen war is debatable, but probably historic (Belfer Center)

The Fight for Yemen (PBS Frontline video)


* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.